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Review: Granblue Fantasy Versus (PlayStation 4)

A nice break from the norm but not without its faults

While Granblue Fantasy has barely a foothold in the United States, the mobile game maintains a strong position in the East with over 24 million players. Cygames’ success has translated into two animated adaptations, an upcoming action-RPG and now a fighting game.

Granblue Fantasy Versus is Cygames’ attempt to break into the fighting game community mainstream with the help of the genre’s champion developer, Arc System Works. A unique take on the tried and true formula of 2D fighting games, Granblue makes a valiant effort to stand on equal footing with some of the best fighting games of the modern era.

Button mashing

At its core, Granblue Fantasy Versus is akin to many anime fighting games in the scene, drawing parallels to the likes of the Blazblue series. Basic gameplay comprises of four main action buttons: Light, Medium, Heavy, and Unique, as well as a Skill and Guard button. Neutral attacks can be chained together at close-range by hitting the same action button three times in succession. At long-range, these moves instead become quick swipes, pokes and anti-air attacks to fend off threatening enemies.

Unique attacks differ across each of the characters and offers a sense of individuality regarding play style and executing setups. For example, the mid-range swordsman Percival’s unique attack is a command grab that tosses enemies into the air allowing for damaging follow-on attacks, while the quick, mix-up heavy Lancelot has a wall dive that either can get him out of the corner or attack from above.

Breaking from the norm

What I found to be most interesting is the implementation of the Guard button. You can still hold back to block, but outside of Mortal Kombat, dedicated block buttons in 2D fighters are nearly unheard of. That said, Granblue Fantasy Versus‘ Guard button has a bit more utility than just protecting your lifebar. Pressing back and “guard” together allows players to execute an evade motion, avoiding all damage except for throws for a very limited amount of time. Pressing forward and “guard” performs a crossover, which allows you to bypass low attacks while potentially getting behind your opponent. These movements are very important to master and a necessity in certain matchups where enemies have special attacks with huge hitboxes.

Lastly, Granblue Fantasy Versus introduces the “Skill” button. Use of the Skill button operates very much like the Special button in Super Smash Bros. Each special attack can be executed by pressing the Skill button by itself or pressing the directional pad down, left or right. For example, the well-rounded Gran’s neutral Skill is a traditional fireball like projectile, while hitting Forward-Skill pulls out a Shoryuken-like uppercut. You’re still able to execute special moves by use of quartercircle input commands, but the Skill button is more of a shortcut for less skilled players.

Believe in victory

Many games in the Ark System Works’ portfolio have a wild flare about them. For the like of Guilty Gear Xrd or Dragon Ball FighterZ, combat isn’t restricted on the ground as lightning fast matches are taken to the air with insane 15-hit plus combos. But Granblue Fantasy Versus doesn’t believe that the path to victory is a race. It prefers a more stable neutral game, with players taking their time feeling one another out before making their first attack. Combos are limited, often capping out around six hits unless your lab work has yielded creative results. The lack of air dashes, launchers and extended air combos makes for a very grounded fighting game.

There’s also the odd mechanic where the special attacks operate on a cooldown. Depending on how you enter the inputs, you could end up waiting a few seconds to be able to use the special move again. Entering the technical commands like quarter-circle forward have a near-instant cooldown with minimal risk, where pressing the Skill button forces the player to wait 2-3 seconds. Using the EX version of your skills will incur up to a six-second cooldown, however, these EX attacks can hit multiple times and allow for advantageous setups to extend damaging combos. While it is a strange design choice, it works quite well with the overall play style adding a “risk vs. reward” element.

Between the limited move pools of the characters and the grounded gameplay, Granblue Fantasy Versus is a relatively slow game. Much of the game lies in “winning neutral” early on in the match and as a result, the game heavily favors either rushdown characters or strong zoners. Slower mid-range characters are forced into a balancing act between playing keep away and getting close enough to deal significant damage.

What’s slower: gameplay or netcode

What is often the Achilles’ heel of a fighting game is the strength of their community (or lack thereof) . Long gone are the days of the arcade, and unless you’ve managed to build a local scene, you’ll probably be stuck playing online. Thus, we come to the controversial topic of Netcode. Generally speaking, fighting games are known for notoriously troublesome netcode. Many an online match is marred by stuttering and disconnects due to a developer’s decision to opt for the inferior delay-based netcode.

You see, with delay-based netcode, both players are required to “wait” before the input of the other player in order to advance the game. Thus there’s a delay to ensure that the inputs have arrived before updating the game state. in the game. Normally, if players have a good stable connection, this isn’t an issue. However, if a player has a five-plus frame delay, it can cause dramatic slowdowns and bring a game that requires fast reaction times to a screeching halt.

Unfortunately, Granblue Fantasy Versus suffers greatly from Arc System Works’ continued effort to sabotage their online communities by not implementing rollback netcode.

Rollback netcode, like GGPO, does not require input commands from both players before updating the game state. Instead, the game runs a simulation at the same time for both players. As inputs are received from the players, the simulation will rollback and re-simulate the match with all input commands to determine the current state of play. This means that gameplay will not slowdown during heavy periods of lag but will instead teleport around if inputs are received late. Good rollback netcode also can undo damage from attacks and combos if it is determined that the attack wouldn’t have landed if there wasn’t lag.

In Granblue Fantasy Versus, connecting to other players takes a miracle in the first place, as connecting to other players often will yield a dropped signal. If you’re able to even get into a match, you’ll be greeted by frequent stutters, dropped inputs and some of the worst lag I’ve experienced in an online game, period. Now this could be due to the game only currently being out in Japan and Asia until the March 3, but I have a Gigabyte connection with an ethernet cable. I have better stability with shoddy indie games than what I’ve had with Granblue.

It should be said that most Japanese fighting games prefer delay-based netcode because it’s easier to develop for and uses less bandwidth. However, it prevents matches from being properly played over long distances (like the U.S. to anywhere in Asia) because of the aforementioned issues.

Embark on a strange journey

Most fighting game’s story modes are often reduced to short cutscenes before and after a scripted fight. Perhaps if the developers are a bit more ambitious, maybe throw in some “Choose Your Own Adventure” style choices to introduce some branching story lines. Cygames decided that just wasn’t going to cut it. Instead of following the tried and true formula, Granblue Fantasy Versus has a whole beat ’em up style of action RPG. While the cutscenes look great, the actual game play lacks substance. Most missions are either “Kill all enemies” or “Survive for X minutes.” The enemies fail to present any sort of challenge, so you’re stuck mindless hacking away at meat shields for upwards to eight hours.

The actual story leaves a lot to be desired, too. Cygames leans too heavily on tired anime tropes that make the RPG mode feel more like a chore to push through than something actually enjoyable. Most of the time, you’ll be stuck behind a slew of static images and text boxes waiting for your chance to jump back into the monotonous task of slaying the same 50 faceless enemies that don’t put up much of a fight.

Spreading yourself thin

I want to make something clear – I genuinely like Granblue Fantasy Versus. It’s a solid fighting game that offers a break from the norm we’re used to seeing from Ark System Works. I especially believe that this would be a great launchpad for people who are just starting to get into fighting games as it simplifies the combat to playing on a single plane with a few tools to make things interesting. But if we’re going to be honest, it’s got some hurdles to get over before it can be great.

The netcode needs to be fixed. Even comparing to other delay-based games, Granblue Fantasy Versus has some of the worst online matchmaking I’ve seen. This isn’t so much a Granblue issue as it is a challenge when dealing with Ark System Works’ aversion to better alternatives. The RPG mode is also a total flop. Time that was spent fleshing out the weapon management system could have went to crafting more interesting enemies rather than copy and pasting the same three enemies per stage.

Summary

It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes beyond 2020. Right now, Granblue Fantasy Versus is riding a premature high with netting a main stage position at EVO, and I have no doubt it’ll impress the masses. But time will tell if it can maintain the hype beyond its glaring faults.

Pros:
+Innovative Gameplay
+Great for Beginners
+Beautiful Graphics
+Great Character Design

Cons:
-Terrible netcode
-RPG Mode feels like a shoe-in

Christopher Wenzel

One half of The ScrubVerse Podcast. Lover of Shining Force and Guilty Gear. Owner of the most basic Sol Badguy. Will do morally ambiguous things for a remake of Phantasy Star IV. Send Jameson for morale.
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